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US immigration pre-clearance: controversial in more ways than one

Those US airlines and unions who are instinctively protectionist have voiced loud opposition to the advantages given to foreign airports by being permitted to establish US immigration pre-clearance. Predictably the loudest noises were generated when the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Airport was among the first of a new round of authorisations.

This was, so it was argued, a great and unfair advantage for Etihad Airways, one of the three Gulf carriers targeted by the US Big Three airlines in their “White Paper”.

There is little doubt that travellers benefit by avoiding the unwelcome delights of US immigration processing on arrival. But it is not altogether clear either that the grants are either unfair or – more to the point – especially valuable for the airlines involved. And one European government is philosophically opposed on the grounds that it confirms a “dystopian vision of a trans-Atlantic security space”.

The origins of the push for pre-clearance came from the US Department of Homeland Security 

Indeed the Homeland Security Department’s Secretary, Jeh Johnson was quoted at the time as saying, “I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more (pre-clearance stations). To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than from our one-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.”

Accusations have been made that the practice also helps the government keep the lid on asylum immigration and other – unwanted – individuals, though that is denied.

Subsequently, at the end of May-2015, 10 airports in nine countries were selected to introduce pre-clearance with the US to enter negotiations with their countries’ governments. All of them have over 400,000 trans-Atlantic passengers each year, the minimum requirement for this arrangement.

At first glance the list may appear slightly anomalous. Why for example is Denmark’s Copenhagen Airport not included? It is marginally the biggest of the three Scandinavian gateways by passenger numbers, slightly ahead of Oslo and Stockholm and all three countries have quite high levels of immigration and emigrés.

Why is Paris absent? And why two airports in the UK? The answer may perhaps relate to security criteria, but there is no indication of this.

There appears to be a conflict between security and commercial considerations as the scene unfolds

There are two factors in play. Firstly, the overt security case. Most of the airports already have a security history. In the UK there have been attacks on Heathrow Airport as well as attempts to launch attacks from it. Manchester was implicated in one of those attempts, the so-called ‘liquids and gels’ plot of 2006 and has been used as an entry and exit point for jihadists.

Amsterdam Schiphol was the European airport used by ‘underwear bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Dec-2009 when he tried to explode a device on a flight between there and Detroit, in transit from Ghana. Tokyo, Stockholm, Madrid, Oslo and Istanbul have all seen their fair share of terrorism.

Brussels, as the location of the European Union, the Commission and the Headquarters of NATO, is always considered a top terrorist target. On the other hand the Paris airports, the sites of multiple attacks by Carlos the Jackal in the 1970s (Orly) and close to the location of the end of the Charlie Hebdo siege in Jan-2015 (Charles de Gaulle) are not included. Nor is Frankfurt, Rome, Munich etc. (The latter two were also attacked by ‘Carlos’ in the 1970s).

The other factor is what might be referred to as the commercial case. In other words, just how much do the airports really want it? While pre-clearance brings certain advantages, there are disadvantages as well, and it is very expensive to introduce. There is the operational practicality to consider and a cost-benefit equation to be weighed carefully on each occasion. The airlines have strong opinions on it, too. US airlines are, sometimes, reported to be supportive of pre-clearance, not only in relation to providing a better customer experience but also in relation to their utilisation of US airport infrastructure as it provides more flexibility.

As it happens it is now known that more than two dozen airports expressed an interest in opening pre-clearance facilities. Those selected were identified as having the “greatest potential to support security and travel facilitation”.

If negotiations are successful, pre-clearance could be completed before departure from these foreign airports rather than upon arrival in the US, thus providing aviation and homeland security with data, reducing waiting times upon arrival at the busiest US airports and helping the US grow its number of foreign tourist visitors; there is a target of 100 million (foreign) visitors annually by 2021.

Overseas visitors spend an average of USD4,300 per person, per trip and the US government is finally getting to grips with their economic value. US border control staff, rightly or wrongly, do not have a good reputation for civility towards visitors and another potential benefit of shifting some of them to departure airports outside the US is that they might respond to a more relaxed, customer friendly culture.

Pre-clearance shifts the immigration burden offshore

By shifting immigration and passport control to the country of departure, passengers effectively arrive in America as if they were domestic travellers. US security officials (from the Customs and Border Protection Service or CBP) are actually based in the country where pre-clearance takes place. There is no outsourcing of staffing to local third parties. Travellers pass through US Immigration and Customs, Public Health, and Department of Agriculture inspections before boarding their aircraft.

Furthermore, buildings and fixtures must be constructed to exact specifications. And the airport must pick up the bill for the facility. Airports are reluctant to talk about the costs but it is believed they can run into tens of millions of dollars. So, ultimately it is a commercial decision. The DHS cannot force foreign airports to take part. There might be some benefits in the DHS ‘promoting’ the arrangement but the commercial benefits that accrue to an airport through introducing it are the ones that matter and that can be a very finely balanced cost-benefit analysis.

Pre-clearance applies to US citizens as well as citizens of most other countries who travel to the US. As United States and Canadian laws require that those in transit must pass through the relevant customs, pre-clearance also applies to transit passengers.

It is argued that pre-clearance is “beneficial to those with connecting flights”, but this is perhaps a dubious claim?

The practice is particularly beneficial to those who have an ongoing connecting flight, as there is greatly reduced risk of border delays causing them to miss onward connections in the US. At least that is the case in theory. In addition, a delay in pre-clearance could cause a local passenger simply to miss the outbound flight from his own country – though there are few airlines that would find such a scenario acceptable. Air passengers with further connections have their baggage checked through to their destination; without pre-clearance the baggage would have to be collected prior to customs inspection and then rechecked onto the subsequent flight.

Pre-clearance also provides considerable flexibility to the airlines operating on those routes where such a programme is available. For example, major US airlines and their subsidiaries routinely operate many daily flights from locations like Toronto and Nassau to New York City. Thanks to the presence of pre-clearance facilities there, the airlines can choose conveniently to direct their flights from these locations to land at LaGuardia instead of JFK or Newark Liberty airports. This allows them to save the valuable space at JFK and EWR for their other international arrivals.

Pre-clearance exists at most major Canadian airports, theoretically enabling more convenient travel from those cities to the US. However, the waiting times at some busy pre-clearance facilities, and notably Toronto Pearson, can also often exceed the waiting times of non-pre-cleared flights at the destination and cause significant delays to departure schedules.

With the notable exceptions of LaGuardia and Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, many more US airports now have customs facilities compared to when the pre-clearance programme first started in 1952. Meanwhile airport authorities have blamed reduced staffing levels by US Customs and Border Protection for delays, but pleas have been answered with deferrals due to domestic priorities.

For some time prior to the recent decision the Department of Homeland Security has had staff working at several European airports

The staff have been issuing advice on which passengers should not be allowed to travel to the US. Since flights carrying these passengers could be prevented from landing in the US, their recommendations have usually been followed up. This, together with the other evidence presented to date, suggests that DHS staff will also be involved at the new facilities even if not “formally” within their own discipline.

The DHS initiative and individual country responses have been shrouded in secrecy. A leaked German document claimed the American authorities approached five European countries over the possibility at two meetings of the European Council’s trans-Atlantic relations working party (Cotra) in Jul-2014 but that only the UK had suggested it would be willing to participate as it could see the advantages.

The German government was said to be very cautious over the proposals. Its concerns were with what it referred to as “a reminder that the dystopian vision of a ‘trans-Atlantic security space’ involving an exchange of financial records, fingerprints and personal data, was already a reality.” It said “We cannot accept US authorities obtaining quasi-operative competences at European airports.”

Holland and France had not ruled the possibility out but would need legal or financial backing for it. (Ultimately Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was included, but no airport from either France or Germany). The Swedish government’s first reaction was reported to be to express scepticism, calling for further analysis of the consequences on the Schengen agreement (the open borders agreement in Europe) and the European convention on human rights. It looks as if Sweden’s concerns were assuaged. (There is another reason for British acquiescence there – the new Conservative government intends to opt out of the Human Rights Act in the UK, replacing it with alternative legislation). Heathrow is an airport the DHS was said to have been looking at in particular.

The countries where the pre-clearance procedure is already in place are Canada, Ireland, the UAE (Abu Dhabi), the Caribbean (Aruba, The Bahamas) and the North Atlantic (Bermuda) – at selected airports.

Dublin (and Shannon) airports are meanwhile five-year veterans at pre-clearance

Presently, Ireland is the only country in Europe to offer pre-clearance for travellers flying to the US. The service is available for those departing from Dublin and Shannon airports. It is interesting to look at how pre-clearance has worked in Ireland.

There, the Customs & Border Protection pre-clearance (CBP p/c) initiative, which was installed in 2010 as part of the Terminal 2 project, is described as having ‘worked well.’ In summer 2015 all US-bound flights will pre-clear at Dublin. The two countries previously had a pre-inspection agreement – allowing immigration inspections but not customs or agriculture inspections – in place since 1986.

There has been a particular focus on growing trans-Atlantic traffic at Dublin in recent years. This is not for the first time – Aer Lingus was active in this segment in the 1980s, attempting to build Dublin as a hub, but lost its way later. And this time around it is not just Aer Lingus. Trans-Atlantic airlines now include Air Canada rouge; Air Transat; American; Delta; Ethiopian (to LAX); United; US Airways; Europe Airpost and WestJet.

As a consequence Dublin is the sixth largest European airport by flights per week and increased its trans-Atlantic passenger numbers by 42% between 2010 and 2014; and by 14% in 2014 itself to 2.1 million. Of that number, 750,000 were transfer passengers, a 37% increase on 2013, and they were from mainland Europe, for example Paris and Amsterdam, as well as the UK, where there are 20 cities connected to the Dublin hub. That is approximately the same number as are connected to Amsterdam from the UK, which dominates the UK’s eastern bound traffic.

The only European airports with more weekly flights than Dublin in summer 2015 will be the major hubs of London Heathrow, Paris CDG, Frankfurt, Amsterdam Schiphol, and Madrid. When measured by seats per week, Dublin Airport is the fifth largest airport in Europe for trans-Atlantic this summer. Dublin is also the fastest growing airport in Europe for long-haul traffic this year.

It would be a big call to claim that the CBP p/c is uniquely responsible for these results. As daa points out, Dublin Airport is helped by its geographic position on the western edge of Europe, and a strong route network to North America, Europe and the Middle East, as well as the availability of US CBP. Not mentioned, but probably equally important, is a comparatively passenger friendly tax regime and a progressive airport mentality.

CBP p/c protects against the chance of being refused entry to the US after making a seven-10 hour flight; but on the downside, it has been discovered that pre-clearance, while it might be good for Irish, British and other European citizens, is not that good for US ones. That is because there are two lines at most US gateway airports – one for US citizens and one for ‘others’. US passengers can usually go through their inspection quite quickly after a short queuing period. It is the non-US ones that can get caught up in interminable queues.

As there is no way for a US citizen to ‘opt out’ of pre-clearance it can therefore sometimes work against him/her. And the advantage loss is even greater for a US citizen who is a member of a trusted traveller programme such as Global Entry and is therefore almost guaranteed rapid processing at the US gateway.

Moreover, there are a growing number of reciprocal arrangements between Global Entry and other countries’ schemes such as Germany’s Easy Pass.

CBP p/c also prescribes against the flexibility with which airports can assign departure gates.

All trans-Atlantic traffic at Dublin is concentrated in a terminal (2) that was designed specifically with this activity in mind. However, it comes at a cost. As mentioned earlier, it can run into eight figures and it has to be ‘bought’ from the US authorities. Moreover, the implementation of CBP p/c requires the signing of an individual bilateral treaty. There is no generic existing treaty that provides the framework.

Despite these treaties, CBP p/c does not have legal powers on foreign soil, so passengers can only be detained under local laws by local authorities. A passenger can choose to abandon their flight and refuse search, but unlike in the United States, officers cannot search them.

This can mean implementation may be difficult for an airport like London Heathrow. Heathrow’s long-term plan calls for the consolidation of terminals but in the short to mid-term trans-Atlantic flights are spread across all four functioning terminals. How can thousands of passengers a day be cleared through US immigration as well as security at one of the world’s busiest international airports?

With hour-long queues at US immigration commonplace, passengers could find themselves having to arrive considerably earlier before their flight to clear the US border and security screening.

That might at least partly explain the interest at Manchester Airport, which satisfies all three of these criteria

Its application is probably a defensive manoeuvre as much as a proactive one. Manchester currently has around 27,000 trans-Atlantic seats each week, compared to 41,000 at Dublin and 231,000 at Heathrow.

The reason put forward by management there is that CBP p/c will “potentially make Manchester more attractive to airlines looking to start routes from the US into the UK”. But there is surely more to it than that.

Without it Manchester would be pincered by three airports to the south, east and west – Heathrow, Amsterdam and Dublin respectively – all with CPB p/c. It could easily lose traffic on existing trans-Atlantic flights to services from competing UK airports that have connections to these airports.

The problem is particularly acute in the case of west-facing Dublin, which must be taking passengers away from Manchester already taking from nearby airports like Leeds Bradford and will do so from Liverpool from Oct-2015.

As the IAG takeover of Aer Lingus goes ahead and IAG seeks to make Dublin its second hub the problem could become worse for Manchester, as the odd one out.

Additionally, Manchester’s CBP p/c will be introduced along with a USD1 billion 10-year revamp which includes the expansion of Terminals 2 and 3, and self-service check-in. T2 will be doubled in size. The two terminals will be linked and T1 may eventually close down altogether, or parts kept as back-up.

The T2 expansion suggests that trans-Atlantic traffic could be contained there. It was originally envisaged as a long-haul terminal.

At present trans-Atlantic flights are spread between all three terminals. No individual figure for the cost of a CBP p/c facility could be ascertained. It is one of 60 individual elements in the plan. Manchester Airports Group anticipates a sharp rise in long-haul passenger numbers from the five million per annum now, as a result of the expansion and the CBP p/c facility.

Manchester’s acquiescence to the proposal will put some other airports at a disadvantage, such as Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, all of which have trans-Atlantic services, which fall within its extended catchment area. Indeed it would go some way to countering the fall in passenger numbers at English airports that is expected to arise from the reduction of Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Scotland to 50% or even 0%.

It is probably not an overstatement to suggest that the DHS’s initiative is a Godsend for the British government, which is trying to find ways to assist English airports in combating the effect of an APD reduction in Scotland but which hadn’t really come up with any ideas yet. Of course, this CBP p/c arrangement only applies at Manchester in England, but the increase in CBP p/c options from other English airports via Dublin, together with the Manchester CBP p/c, could be promoted as a way in which the government is trying to help regional airports in northern England against the threat from Scotland.

What happens if and when a Scottish airport signs up for CBP p/c is another matter

Edinburgh Airport is keeping a watching eye on developments and could be tempted to apply in the future. Edinburgh has United Airlines’ services to New York Newark and Chicago, and a recently introduced American Airlines flight to New York.

While two of these services are seasonal it is very close to the minimum annual passenger requirement. There are currently 9,688 seats a week on offer between Edinburgh and the US. If services operated year round that would be just over 0.5 million annually.

In the case of Birmingham CBP p/c would be considered in the future when trans-Atlantic passengers reach the required level. Birmingham is not quite as well served as Edinburgh by trans-Atlantic flights but there are two – both to New York – and the recently extended runway there suggests there will be more. As of Jun-2015 there are 6,008 seats offered each week between Birmingham and the US, equating to 312,000 annually.

In Sweden, CBP p/c is considered to be highly beneficial

Stockholm Arlanda Airport eagerly awaits the commencement of “concrete discussions” with the US CBP authorities in order to ease connections between Sweden and the US. About 650,000 people travel between Sweden and the US per year. Currently five direct routes are offered between the two countries, and two more will start in the autumn.

Around half of the passengers between Sweden and the US go via other European airports such as Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow and Frankfurt (two of which are on the CBP new entrant list) and the conditions for more direct flights will be strengthened. The application was supported by both the Swedish government and businesses. According to studies carried out by state airport operator Swedavia, more than 70% of today’s US passengers support the introduction of US pre-clearance. Above all they welcome the opportunity to be able to change to connecting flights in the US more smoothly.

The construction process for the US pre-clearance facility, which will be implemented in the lower level of the F-pier in Terminal 5, is estimated at 1-1.5 years. Prior to this, a more detailed discussion is required between Swedavia and the US authorities regarding the design of the facility. The final introduction of US pre-clearance is subject to approval by Swedish and American authorities. The focus on US pre-clearance is part of Swedavia’s adopted decision to invest SEK13 billion (USD1.59 billion) in order to develop Stockholm Arlanda Airport.

Swedavia claims that US pre-clearance strengthens Stockholm Arlanda Airport’s role as the hub for aviation in Scandinavia. But it is not the only one of course. Oslo Airport, which was bigger in terms of total passengers in 2014 by almost two million, also qualifies and has been selected. There are almost 13,000 seats each week on offer between Oslo and North America just now, and 18,500 between Stockholm and North America.

It is evident that Oslo is equally pleased with its nomination and “eagerly awaits” acquiring pre-clearance status. It is currently not clear when the system could potentially be in place at Oslo Airport.

But operational difficulties in the Gulf loom over the second tranche of pre-clearance agreements

While some airports that already have pre-clearance acknowledge its benefits (such as Dublin, with caveats) and others look forward to its implementation, it is not entirely without its issues and problems.

All Etihad passengers flying from Abu Dhabi to the US began to benefit from US immigration pre-clearance from 15-Jan-2015. Previously, pre-clearance was available only on selected mid-morning flights. Etihad claimed that since its opening in Jan-2014, US pre-clearance had been extremely popular with air travellers, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent and Middle East region, more than 325,000 people having passed through the facility.

But a quick glance at most of the many blogs written by Middle East business or leisure travellers, and those from other regions, paints a picture of flights there being delayed by up to two hours. One of the problems appears to be that so many passengers are crammed into one departure ‘envelope’ of just two hours and another that Etihad invariably has to wait for incoming transfer passengers who do not have the required UAE visas.

It is understood that Dubai Airport would like to introduce pre-clearance as well but is under pressure from Emirates not to go there. CEO Sir Tim Clark is robustly sceptical.

There is, as always, absolute clarity too in the position of Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who said recently, “I will not have pre-clearance in Doha and from what I know, Dubai will not have that. If I start doing pre-clearance in Doha and my aircraft constantly arrives late into the US, which is happening now with Etihad, I’m obliged to provide accommodation to my customers who misconnect, because they never asked us to pre-clear. This is something we generated, so I would rather take the passenger on time to their destination and then what happens in immigration and customs is not my problem. I don’t want to create another confusion or delay by pre-clearing passengers. Quite simply, my job as an airline is to take passengers from point A to point B, on time, and what happens there in the immigration is not my problem.”

Abu Dhabi is moving to ease the problems, but there are inevitable complexities.

So it would seem that while there is enthusiasm for pre-clearance at those airports that have been given the nod, and qualified enthusiasm at Dublin, it is not the case that this mechanism will work everywhere, to everyone’s satisfaction.

There is still much refining to be done.

(This report was first published in CAPA's Airline Leader Journal for aviation CEOs) - http://www.airlineleader.com/)

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